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TN House Passes Bill Letting Clerks Refuse Marriage Licenses to LGBTQ Couples

The bill is a direct challenge to federal marriage equality protections.

The Tennessee State Capitol is pictured in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Republican-controlled Tennessee state House of Representatives voted on Monday to pass a bill that would allow county officials to deny same-sex or interracial couples marriage licenses.

House Bill 878 states that county clerks and their staff “shall not be required to solemnize a marriage if the person has an objection to solemnizing the marriage based on the person’s conscience or religious beliefs.” The bill now heads to the Senate, which will begin consideration of its passage in the chamber next week.

If the bill becomes state law, it would directly challenge federal marriage equality protections, including Supreme Court rulings and the recently-passed Respect for Marriage Act.

The Respect for Marriage Act, which passed in the last congressional session and was signed into law by President Joe Biden, requires states to recognize same-sex marriage licenses from other states but does not require them to issue same-sex marriage licenses themselves — meaning that if federal marriage equality protections are ever undone by the conservative-led Supreme Court, states would be able to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Federal marriage equality protections have been in place since 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states must grant same-sex couples the right to marry. Decades earlier, in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia , the Court ruled that states could not ban interracial marriages.

In the Supreme Court case upending abortion rights last summer, however, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that justices should re-examine Obergefell and other cases based on “due process” precedents and the right to privacy standard previously established by the Court

The Tennessee bill, which has a high likelihood of passing, has the potential to upend marriage equality protections across the country — if the bill becomes law, it will likely be challenged, resulting in appeals that could work their way up to the Supreme Court.

Critics condemned the bill for being a blatant attack on LGBTQ couples in the state, pointing out that the legislature has already passed a number of bills aimed at restricting the rights of LGBTQ people.

“Extremist Tennessee lawmakers are unrelenting in their discriminatory attacks on the LGBTQ+ community,” said Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow, adding that this bill and other anti-LGBTQ bills “are about stripping away the basic human rights that LGBTQ+ people have fought for over decades, forcing LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender and non-binary people, back in the closet and labeling us as dangerous.”

“The Tennessee House of Representatives continues to be one of the most dangerous legislative chambers in the country for LGBTQ+ people,” Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders said.

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